Special Report

June 15, 2024

An unending battle for press freedom in Nigeria

Nigeria still ranks low on table of free press operation — ActionAid, JAP, others

By Luminous Jannamike, Abuja

In a nation that prides itself on democratic values, the reality for Nigerian journalists tells a different story. Despite President Bola Tinubu’s promises to uphold press freedom, the media landscape remains fraught with danger. Journalists face a relentless barrage of attacks, harassment, arrests, detentions and threats.

History of courage

Nigeria, with its vibrant and diverse media landscape, has historically been a beacon of press freedom in Africa. The country’s journalists have long played a crucial role in holding power to account, exposing corruption, and advocating for human rights. President Bola Tinubu, during his campaign and early days in office, pledged to protect this vital pillar of democracy. His promises kindled hope among journalists and media practitioners, suggesting a new era of transparency and freedom.

However, beneath these promises lay a brewing storm. Nigeria’s press freedom was on a knife-edge, with underlying tensions threatening to erupt. The media community, while hopeful, remained wary of the political and social challenges that could undermine their work. This uneasy calm set the stage for a series of events that would test the resilience of Nigerian journalists like never before.

Stormy weather

The tension began to mount with a series of high-profile incidents that signaled a deteriorating environment for press freedom. Marcus Fatunmole, a respected investigative journalist at the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), was harassed by security agents at the Eagle Square car park in Abuja. Fatunmole was investigating the FCT mass transportation scheme, a topic of significant public interest, when he encountered hostility from state forces. This incident was a stark reminder of the perils faced by journalists probing sensitive issues.

The situation further escalated with the brutalization of Dele Fasan, Bureau Chief of Galaxy Television in the South-South, by officers of the Nigerianv Army 3 Battalion. Fasan was covering a labour protest over economic hardship in Warri, Delta State, when he was attacked. Such acts of violence against journalists were not isolated events. Journalists covering the arraignment of former governor Abdulfattah Ahmed in Kwara State were barred from the courtroom, raising serious concerns over transparency and access to information.

Violence and intimidation

These incidents were part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation. Journalists covering politically sensitive events, such as the All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship primary election in Edo State, also faced threats and violence. These attacks highlighted a growing trend of using state power to silence critical voices and suppress independent journalism.

The crisis reached its zenith with the tragic death of Hamisu Danjibga, a long-serving broadcast journalist at the Voice of Nigeria. Abducted and later found dead, his body bore signs of violent struggle. According to police reports, his kidnappers stabbed him to death when he tried to overpower them. Danjibga’s murder sent shockwaves through the journalistic community, underscoring the extreme dangers faced by those in the profession.

Alongside Danjibga’s death, the persistent threats against other journalists like Ebule Anthony Metsese, editor of Fresh Angle International, and Sufyan Ojeifo, publisher of The Conclave, amplified the climate of fear and intimidation. These threats were not empty; they were harbingers of potential violence, forcing many journalists to live in constant anxiety.

The climax of this crisis was further marked by a series of arrests and detentions. Kasarachi Aniagolu of the Whistler Newspaper was arrested and detained by the anti-violence crime unit of the Nigeria Police Force while covering a police raid on Bureau de Change (BDC) operators in Abuja. Segun Olatunji, editor of FirstNews, was abducted by armed men at his home in Lagos and detained for ten days over a report exposing financial misconduct by government officials. Daniel Ojukwu, a journalist with the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, was detained without trial for over a week due to his investigative work. These incidents highlighted the government’s increasing use of arbitrary detention to silence critical journalism.

Glimmers of hope

Amidst this turmoil, there were glimmers of hope in the form of court decisions upholding press freedom. In January 2024, the Federal High Court ruled that the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) could not unilaterally impose fines on news stations for supposedly breaching the broadcasting code, as this would mean the NBC was exercising judicial powers. This ruling, resulting from a suit instituted by the non-profit Media Rights Agenda (MRA), was a significant victory for press freedom, affirming the judiciary’s role in protecting media rights.

In another landmark decision, a Federal High Court order on February 16 directed the Federal Government of Nigeria to investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators of all attacks against journalists and other media practitioners. The court also mandated that all victims of such attacks must have access to effective remedies. These rulings provided a legal framework to challenge the government’s actions and offered a semblance of protection for journalists. However, the implementation of these rulings remained a crucial concern.

Call to action

Despite these legal victories, the overall environment for press freedom in Nigeria continues to be fraught with challenges.The government’s efforts to address the assaults on journalists, such as establishing a committee to investigate these attacks, have been perceived as insufficient. The effectiveness and sincerity of these initiatives remain in question, given the government’s inconsistent track record in conducting thorough investigations and holding perpetrators accountable.

As the nation grapples with these issues, it becomes clear that significant and sustained efforts are needed to improve the situation. The current state of press freedom in Nigeria paints a troubling picture but also serves as a call to action for the government, civil society, and international bodies.

The courage and resilience of Nigerian journalists, who continue to report in the face of such adversity, are commendable. These journalists are not merely victims; they are also symbols of resistance and champions of truth. Their determination underscores the critical role of a free press in any democratic society.

Way forward

To safeguard press freedom in Nigeria, several steps are imperative:
The government should create a specialized body to investigate and prosecute attacks on journalists. This body must be independent and adequately resourced to ensure thorough and impartial investigations.

Laws that impede press freedom, such as the Cybercrime Act and the Terrorism Prevention Act, need urgent revision. These laws have been used to justify the arrest and detention of journalists and must be reformed to protect free expression.

Journalists facing threats must receive adequate protection and support from the government. This includes physical protection, legal assistance, and psychological support to help them continue their work without fear.

The judiciary must remain independent and impartial in cases involving journalists and media outlets. It is crucial that courts continue to defend press freedom and hold the government accountable for any violations.

Rights activists, journalists speak

Deji Adeyanju, a human rights advocate, poignantly noted, “It appears the Abacha Days are truly back. Because how else do you explain the onslaught against journalists simply executing their constitutional mandate? A beacon of hope seems distressingly out of reach.”

Anietie Ewang, a researcher from Nigeria at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Africa Division, asserted, “Nigeria’s constitution, along with international and African human rights treaties, enshrines the sanctity of press freedom and the prerogative of free expression. Nigerian authorities bear the responsibility to honor these rights, permitting government critique devoid of dread of retribution, censorship, or legal reprimands.”

Jide Oyekunle, NUJ Chairman of the Correspondents Chapel, Abuja, echoed forthrightly, “Journalism is not a crime, journalism is not a foe, journalism is the lifeblood of democracy, the catalyst for positive metamorphosis.”

While President Tinubu’s administration has made some positive moves, the overall environment for press freedom in Nigeria remains precarious. The government’s promises must be matched with concrete actions to protect journalists and uphold their rights. The media fraternity continues to advocate for comprehensive reforms to ensure their safety and freedom.

The courage and tenacity of Nigerian journalists are commendable, but they cannot stand alone. It is the government’s responsibility to create an environment where the media can operate freely and safely. Only then can Nigeria truly uphold the principles of press freedom and democratic accountability. The international community, civil society organizations, and local advocacy groups must also play a crucial role in supporting and protecting journalists in Nigeria.

In conclusion, the struggle for press freedom in Nigeria is ongoing. While there have been some victories, the path forward requires sustained effort and commitment from all stakeholders. The stories of Marcus Fatunmole, Dele Fasan, Hamisu Danjibga, and many others highlight the urgent need for action. By working together, there is hope that Nigeria can turn the tide and ensure a free and vibrant press that truly serves the public interest.